The Year We Forgot Birthday Breakfast

My mother, Nancy Robb Amerson, would have turned 90 last Sunday. Although it is now nearly 10 years since she passed away, there is not a February 4 that goes by without me remembering the year we all forgot her birthday.

It was a Friday in 1972. We’d been in Madrid just six months for Dad’s Embassy assignment running the US Information Service country-wide operation. I was doing my senior year at Torrejon Air Base High School, trying out for the production of Lil Abner without understanding that it had been picked for roles suited to the long-term “military brats.” Susie was in her sophomore year at Torrejon, a cheerleader and girlfriend of a senior on the football team. We rode the same Base bus each morning but lived in different strata. This doesn’t excuse our lapse but may be how we managed to be so individually-centered that year. Dad was immersed in the job. We were all up and out the door with scarely a bye, and without any of us giving Mom a single birthday hug.

In some families, the absence of celebration wouldn’t be noticed early in the day, and we might have recovered from the lapse by, say, a birthday dinner. But in our home, birthdays were celebrated at breakfast, a tradition born of Dad’s late working hours and our parents’ frequent evening engagements representing the Embassy.

Birthday Breakfast involved festooning the chosen one’s chair with streamers and balloons and piling cards and presents on the designated placemat and decorating the table with a fresh bouquet, and keeping the Birthday Girl (or Dad) away from the table until the candles on the coffee cake were lit. There was a Birthday Crown.

That Friday morning, Mom’s breakfast chair was bare, her plate was empty of home made cards, and the table wasn’t festooned with a birthday bouquet. We were clueless that we’d just broken Mom’s heart.

It still astonishes me.

And, worse, Mom said nothing. Her eventual “I’m disappointed” — the understated Norwegian version of yelling — still resonates.

There were no family or close friends to make up for our omission. Mom’s mother was 5,700 miles away in Sun City, California, where she had moved to live with her sister after Grandpa died. Mom’s brother, now running the family store in Minnesota, was unpredictable. Her circle of childhood friends would have surrounded her with laughter and cake, had she not left Winona more than two decades before for a different life, choosing, unknowingly, a life without the kind of friends who would call after the family left for their day to wish you happy birthday and be outraged with you at your selfish husband and children.

The life of the Foreign Service wife in the Cold War era was regulated by hierarchical relationships: your husband’s position and tenure in each short-term assignment dictated your position among the spouses. Upon arriving at a post, you “called on” the Ambassador’s wife and the spouses of the senior Embassy staff who, in turn, would pull you into activities designed to integrate you into the entire Mission team. You’d become well acquainted with your peers and even friendly with those you liked best, but it was all at arm’s length. These were short-term relationships with people in the business; even if you could establish more intimate friendships, it was business.

Mom was initiated in the role in the 1950s as the junior spouse in Caracas, recruited to make finger food for receptions at the Ambassador’s Residence. In that era, helping to hostess a party was a reasonable assignment that helped your husband do his job. Post by post, she and Dad became a team: accompanying visiting dignitaries to La Scala in Milan, to a papal audience in Rome; attending the Marine Ball in Madrid.

You would not be paid. You could not get a job that did pay.

But, mostly the role of the Foreign Service wife was to establish, and re-establish, and re-establish a serene home for her family. The State Department put it this way:

…the Foreign Service wife is instantly thrown into a strenuous intercultural situation requiring much energy and rapid accomplishment in establishing her household and family in a new situation…Hardly any wife has chosen this as her own way of life; most have accepted it gracefully as a by-product of their choice of mate….
Guidelines for Representational Responsibilities of Wives in our Posts Abroad, Management Reform Bulletin No. 20, June 3, 1971, US Department of State

So, the least “her household and family” could do was remember that 4th of February was The Foreign Service Wife’s birthday. But the weekend went by and nothing.

On Monday, the clue arrived in the Embassy Air Force Post Office box: the annual “astral twin” Snoopy birthday card from Mom’s college friend Dot Wortman. Dana, Dad’s secretary, lay it on the top of the pile. The envelope and Dot’s distinctive handwriting tipped Dad off. He composed a poem on his lunch hour, drafted it in his best calligraphy before he left the office, and stopped by the florists around the corner from the Embassy on his way home. My cheeks remember the hot flush of embarrassment when I saw the flowers in the center of the table, the cream-colored stationery of Dad’s poem propped up against the vase. I don’t remember what I said, or how I tried to make it up to Mom. Or Susie’s reaction.

What I do remember is Mom’s disappointment.

When I told my 25 year-old daughter about this incident the other day, she was appalled. She was raised in the Birthday Breakfast tradition. She had good reason to be appalled.

And on my own birthday the next year, when I had been set adrift at an American college while they went on to Dad’s next post, the Birthday Crown magically appeared at the foot of my dorm room bed. Mom and my roommate had conspired to transport Birthday Breakfast across the Atlantic from Italy to Ohio.

Which makes February 4, 1972 that much meaner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enough Trump Mierda

“Shithole” is now a printable and sayable vulgarism.

“A day after meeting with Norway’s prime minister in Washington, President Trump told members of Congress that the United States needed more immigrants from places like Norway …and fewer immigrants from countries like Haiti …which Trump called shitholes…” (The New York Times, January 12, 2018)

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By calling Norway “good” and Haiti and African nations “shitholes,” Trump has once again put himself at the center of attention. This time he has played to a global audience and international consequences are mounting fast. Norwegians have called Trump out as a racist, venting their outrage and disgust not only at Mr. Trump’s vulgar language but at using their country to make a racially tinged insult. The African Union has called for an apology for a remark that “flies in the face of all accepted behavior and practice.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights calls Trump’s remarks “shocking and shameful … opening the door to humanity’s worst side … the single most damaging and dangerous consequence of this type of comment by a major political figure.”

And some countries understood the Trump quid pro quo: disagree with me, and I’ll come after you, whether it’s the press, or a judge, or a political foe. It’s a zero-sum game to him. Rather than risk being unfunded, a South Sudanese government official stated: “Unless it was specifically said about South Sudan, we have nothing to say.”

Trump has unleashed a … oh, hell, it’s a shitstorm, and we hear that he is delighted with the response.  His words and his response show Trump to be a bully and a bigot who cares not for the country he was elected to lead, but for himself alone.

And here’s some good news for the President: Norwegians are already here!  The bad news? They looked like “undesirables” to people like Trump when they got off the boat.

Steerage

My parents were descendants of Norwegian farmers who had suffered through famine and had seen their livelihood erased by industrialization. They arrived at our shores poor, huddled, and yearning for a new life like millions of others who braved the dangerous voyage with no assurance of a future in this unknown place. The masses that teemed into Ellis Island at the end of the 1800s were the lucky ones who survived weeks at sea, poorly nourished and surrounded by disease.

We Norwegians had nothing to offer back then, except for the willingness to work hard. The Amundons made their way west to establish homesteads on the prairies of South Dakota. Michael Landon made this look like good family fun on the Little House television show, but it was a dangerous, exhausting and lonely life. Read Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth.

Today, immigrants continue to risk the ocean journey in the pursuit of a better life, but now their skin is brown. Some of the skin is shit brown.
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Haitians are marching on Mar-A-Lago a few miles from my home tomorrow morning, on Martin Luther King’s birthday, in protest of the slur. They will be risking their menial jobs cleaning hotel toilets in order to tell their story.  Around Palm Beach County, crews of Latino immigrants from Central America will fan out tomorrow to wrestle our gated community green spaces into shape, or to install roof tiles, or to pick strawberries. Men will stand on the corner by the Home Depot hoping some contractor needs an extra back. This is hard, hot, humiliating work – what we called “shit jobs” before getting “real jobs” – and it’s keeping their families alive back in El Salvador or Guatemala.

The Norsky’s efforts paid off, too. Two generations later, the Land of Opportunity and the post-World War II GI Bill opened college up to the grandsons and granddaughters of these pioneers, and college introduced the world.

My father left the Norwegian homesteaded farm in South Dakota for the War, then a liberal arts education, and finally an offer to join the United States Information Agency.  Eisenhower, the victorious general, saw USIA as the structure through which America could rebuff Communism, not by condemning and threatening — like Trump —  but by “winning hearts and minds.” Democracy was built on open elections, the freedom of assembly and the open exchange of ideas, and freedom of the press.  Telling America’s story through free public libraries, visiting artists, and educational exchanges built relationships for the United States would use to keep the USSR at bay.  Dad proudly represented the land that gave his Norwegian ancestors a new life during his 20-year Foreign Service career, serving under both Democrat and Republican administrations.

Dad retired before the end of the Cold War caused a paradigm shift away from the dual balance of power. The proliferation of nuclear arms and the emergence of radical terrorism around the world have created multiple players in the game of world domination. Putin is snaking Russia into the most sacred of American institutions, our elections. China is filling the space once held by the United States to fund initiatives in Latin America and Africa. It is exporting Artificial Intelligence systems designed to keep totalitarian governments in control. Democracy is no longer the obvious model.

But American values haven’t changed.  Today, more than 16,000 Americans — descendants of slaves, descendants of immigrants, sons and daughters of refugees  — represent our country in 270 Foreign Service posts throughout the world, promoting tolerance, fairness, equality, the rule of law, the freedom of the press. They do this despite a president who their foreign counterparts call ‘catastrophic,’ ‘terrifying,’ ‘incompetent’ and ‘dangerous.’

The Council on Foreign Relations concludes: “The president is not playing the leadership role the rest of the world has come to expect from the United States, and the consequences are piling up….when it comes to Trump and the world, it’s not better than you think; it’s worse.” And that was before Thursday.

Trump does not speak for me. He does not speak for my country.  Americans must call Trump out, loudly, consistently, and resoundingly now and all the way to the mid-term elections in November.

And “shithole” would be a contender for 2018 Word of the Year, except we know that the long months ahead of us will add competing crap.

Playing Presepio

I am not ready for Christmas until the manger scenes are unwrapped and assembled. It’s a tradition that began in the late 50’s in Dad’s first post, Caracas, the first of the three Catholic countries we called home in which the creche is the center of Christmas commemorations. During the early 60’s in Italy, our presepio collection grew to include shepherds, farm animals, bridges, elements of an entire diorama that took us hours to create: newspaper hills covered in moss, streams of tin foil, the place at the edge of the scene from which my sister and I would progress the Wise Men, clay step by clay step, until they arrived to give the baby their gifts on January 7.

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My Nativity elements today are an amalgam of home-grown, handcrafted and mass produced pieces. My uncle Glenn Goodroad built the manger in South Dakota a quarter-century ago. The little black and white dog gazing at Baby Jesus is from Caracas and is IMG_5442nearly as old as I am. He’s down to two stumpy legs so I lean him up against the manger: he’s earned a place of honor, as do the Caraqueno standing angels whose glitter has all but worn off.

The clay pots are from the ‘60s in Bogota, as was a folk art manger made of a Fab detergent box that I treasured for 50 years, far longer than its useful life. The trees in clay are from Madrid’s Plaza Mayor in early 70’s, as are the Wise Men.

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My dad brought me back the “manger in a box” from a visit to the Middle East before his retirement from the Foreign Service in the early ‘80s,


and somewhere along the way I found this Mexican version of the trinity, carved wise men and sheep. When my husband and I were in Sorrento two years ago, I added a shepherd and a new Jesus, bringing my total to three: as my Aunt Snooky said, we can all use more Jesuses.

Ray and I also visited Rome’s Piazza Navona. The Bernini statues are as iconic as the ristorante Tre Scalini, but none of the summer scene captured the intoxicating Christmas magic that eminates from Piazza Navona in December. DSCN3192DSCN3188

Here is how I recall one Sunday noon in December, 1961. I had just turned seven.

It was a cold four-block walk, even in the noonday sun. Everyone was home on Sunday, their cars parked on the sidewalk, so we went single file alongside the rough walls of the old palazzi. The smells of garlic and olive oil drifted out from behind the barred windows. A man scuttled by with panini for pranzo, pushing his way through a heavy wooden door; I got a glimpse of the stone courtyard and the broad stairway disappearing up into the gloom as the door slowly swung closed. A ribbon of bright blue sky ran between one side of the street and the other, interrupted only by laundry hung like flags.
My father wandered into the street with the movie camera on.
“Okay, Nancy, now you and the girls walk ahead. No, don’t look back at me. Just go ahead. Act natural.”
We heard this a lot.

The sticky sweet smell of fried dough and tangy sausages curled around the next corner, and there was Piazza Navona. A sea of canvass booths ran all along the inside track of the oval. People were everywhere. Bunches of balloons floated in the center of the crowd.
“Wow, it’s really full,” I said. “You can’t even see the Bernini.”
Dad asked me to repeat that for the camera.
Mom steered us into the crowd, with a kind of drawn out “Bob,” that meant please cut out the filming and take one of the girls. Susie reached back for his hand. We wandered from booth to booth, the four of us reflected in huge golden balls, pink balls, red balls. A bunch of grapes in silver glass shimmered in the sun, the light trapped inside like Tinkerbell. Birds with tails of spun glass were stopped mid-flight. Clear big glass bells hung quietly. Twirling stretches of green tinsel spiraled up endlessly. The sun danced in red and blue and green from booth to booth, marking the path like an airport runway at night.
As Mom paused to touch special pieces, the vendors would start in.
“Signora, un bell’ prezio.” The negotiation would begin with an opening price.
“Eh.” she’d answer.
The price would drop a bit.
“What would she offer?”
“I could pay…” she responded, loud enough for Dad to hear how good her Italian was now.
Done. The knotted string bag she’d stuffed into her purse began to take shape as it hung off her arm, round with bundles of newspaper protecting new ornaments for our tree.
“Grazie.”
“Prego, Signora, e buon’ natale.”
I knew these new pieces would be great additions to the ornaments Grandpa and Grandma had sent us from the Store in Winona, and to those Mom had packed up last Christmas when we lived in Bologna, along with the tinsel she had carefully peeled off the tree and wrapped in tin foil to be used again.

On the other side of the piazza, in the deep cool shadows under the canvas, was a whole new Christmas universe: the presepio. Hills of spongy green moss, sandy paths, rocky ledges, gnarly clumps of wood stuck in clay bases, tin foil waterfalls springing from cork mountain walls and wooden bridges crossing rivers of glass. An entire village with a winding street of little stones and houses and even some laundry hanging, and then down in the valley shepherds with their lambs slung across their shoulders, and a farm with pottery mules and oxen and white chickens and little yellow chicks, and the three Wise Men climbing a far hill in brilliant robes all gold and ruby and emerald, and silver angels spreading their wings to protect the little straw covered hut, the Madonna seated on her invisible chair and Joseph standing in the hay gripping his staff, both gazing at the empty cradle. No one puts Jesus out until he is born Christmas Eve.
“Well, girls, it may not be South Dakota but how about a little farm of your own?” Dad said.
“Yes!”
Susie helped me choose the best pieces for our own presepio and soon Mommy’s bag was bursting with moss and bark and figurines, and I had figured out the best way to build. Susie had other ideas.
“Let’s make it under the tree,” she said.
“No, no, it needs to be up high,” I said. “On the trunk.”
My father had brought home from the office a big square of cardboard for art projects. It would fit right on top of the big trunk from Winona, ready for newspaper hills under a draped sheet.
“No,” Susie said.
My sister needed a lot of explanations, it seemed to me.
“Look,” I began, but my analysis was cut short by a squealing sound at the far end of the piazza.
“Bagpipes!” Mom smiled at us. “Just like your Robb ancestors in Scotland.” She took us each by the hand and strode off in the direction of the noise. My father followed. I bet he had the camera running again.

The squealing dimmed to a long whine that reeled us in. A wavering tune balanced on top of the hum. Scotland. I wondered if the musicians would be wearing the plaid skirts like the ones Mommy showed us in Winona.
The crowd had encircled the players.
“Look, Bob,” Mom said. “Farmers?”
“Shepherds, actually,” Daddy said authoritatively.
Shepherds. What were they doing in the middle of Rome? Someone made room for us blonde ragazze. The green loden wool of strangers’ coats scratched gently at my cheeks as we squeezed through.
We popped out of the crowd in front of two men in woolen hats and leather vests, their legs wrapped in sheepskin bound by leather ropes. Their boots drooped around their ankles. No skirts here.
They each carried a pouch from which they were squeezing music with their elbows. Their bulging cheeks pushed air into through a long instrument like one of our recorders, and the shepherds modulated the sound by covering the holes with thei fingers protruding from their tipless gloves.
The gentle tune was repeating now, the notes flowing simply into each other, the melody floating up into the air with winter’s breath. I turned to look for Dad. When he lowered the movie camera, I tugged at his sleeve.
“Can we learn this song?”
“Yes, please?” Susie said.
“Well, sure,” he said, smiling at Susie and me. Mom was beaming.
“That would be very nice, girls.”
The bagpipes whined to a stop and the last note hung in the still cold air. One of the men pulled off his hat and carried it around the gathered crowd.
“Grazie, grazie, buon natale, grazie signora, buon natale.”
Dad dropped a few lire into the hat while Susie and I hung back next to Mom. The melody of the shepherds’ song rang in my ears as we walked slowly back to the car.IMG_5445

Twenty-two years later, our Italian friend Roberto Lucic gifted my husband and me the lyrics to the song we heard that day in Piazza Navona,“Tu scendi da le stelle”,

 

Listen to it here sung by very dear Italian children in 2011.

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas Eve: Part Two

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[Tonight, my husband, my daughter and I continue a tradition begun in 1959 of having tacos for Christmas Eve dinner. For years I didn’t make the connection between the meal and our Foreign Service journey: after all, we’d never lived in Mexico. It was not until I started reading my mother’s letters home that I understood that tacos were her attempt at normalizing a tradition begun during Dad’s first post in Caracas….]
Christmas Eve, Milan, 1959 (from Inventing Myself: A Memoir, draft)

I had memorized all the doors on the block down to our pensione. The paper store, the shoe store, the cigarette store. Halfway down the block we passed the Rinascente, where my mother had bought our Christmas ornaments, since our real ones were on a boat somewhere, along with our furniture and toys and clothes. I caught a whiff of the perfume counter as we passed the door.

The doorman stood in front of the pensione looking like a toy soldier in his gold braided red uniform. His brass buttons sparkled as he tipped his hat and opened the glass door.
“Buona sera, signora.”
“Buona sera.”
My mother let go our hands and Susie and I skipped into the hotel, our leather soles slapping at the white and black marble floor. The lady behind the desk looked up. Her eyes were ringed in heavy black that matched her dark, high-necked dress.
“Buona sera, signora, ragazze.”
Ragazze.
I loved that word. It was much jazzier than niñas.
“Buona sera,” my mother answered as she caught up with us.
The sounds of our shoes were muffled by the red runner that led to the elevator. My mother pushed the button, and the elevator came chugging down, settling behind the brass gate. She pulled the gate aside and grabbed the door handle, then quickly steered us into the cage. She leaned in on us as the gate clanged shut behind her, the two sides reaching for each other like fingers interlacing. I tightened my legs; still, the back of my head thumped against my mother’s coat as the elevator whined and bumped to a start, like a slow hiccup. We slowly climbed, the broad marble stairs zig zagging around us. Side. Back. Side. Front. The primo piano slid down from my forehead to my belly button to my feet and gone. Side. Back. Side. Front. The secondo slid past us. I looked up, letting my head fall way back against my wooly collar and stared through the lacy metal ceiling, following the quivering cables way, way up. I squinted shut the outsides of my eyes and the stairs became a soft ring of pale light. If I looked down, it was like falling.
The elevator jerked to a stop and Mom tugged the gate open. I jumped over the space where you could see all the way down and followed my mother and sister down the hall to our little hotel apartment. Mom unlocked the door and we walked into the dark. It felt strange to be alone there.

IMG_5463My mother turned on the lamp next to the couch and drew the drapes, stopping next to the bay window to adjust one of the decorations on the little dresser-top tree that My father had brought home a few nights ago. She clicked on the tree lights. The decorations from Rinascente sparkled and glinted off the wrapped gifts huddled under the fake branches. Susie’s little white felt angel dangled next to my lavender one.
“OK, girls, time to get ready for Christmas Eve,” My mother said. “Your father will be home soon.”
Susie and I shared the smaller of the two bedrooms. As I hung my coat up, I looked at the wool skirts and jumpers the cousins had given us last month. I missed my pink cotton shirt and the rest of my real clothes that were somewhere on the ocean. My mother said that they’d be here in time for the hot weather. I couldn’t imagine Milan ever being warm. My bones felt tight.
“Girls!”
I tossed my sweater on my twin bed. Susie followed me out. I reached back inside to turn off the ceiling light.
Mo15726845_10206240197842377_8330204807525676085_nm was at the single counter in the small kitchen opening wax paper bundles.

“Hallacas?” Susie said. The banana leaf-wrapped cornmeal meat pie was the traditional Christmas meal in Caracas.safe_image.php
“Well, almost,” my mother said. “I thought we might try a little variation this year.”I guessed Italians didn’t have hallacas. “We’re having tacos. It’ll be like making your own hallaca right at the table.”She handed me a bowl of grated yellow cheese and another one of chopped tomatoes.

The tangy smell of browning hamburger warmed the apartment with wonderful familiarity.
“As soon as your father comes home,” Mom began.
The apartment door clicked open. I looked down the hallway as Dad walked in.

“Do I smell Christmas Eve?”

He lowered his briefcase to the floor and swung the door shut behind him. The four of us were together. Something inside of me relaxed.
“Daddy!” Susie ran into his arms.
“Did you bring us anything from office?” I said.
“For my girls? Of course.”

My father walked us into the small living room and lowered Susie to the couch. “Just reach into that there briefcase and you’ll see a letter or two that came in through the Embassy. Hi, honey.”
My mother had joined us. They kissed, her dark head tilted up to his fair one.
“Buon Natale,” she said.
“That’s the spirit!” my father said, unbuttoning his coat. “What did I tell you, Nan? You’re going to take to this place in no time.”
My mother just smiled and took his coat.
“Any apartment finds?”
“Oh, that’ll come, right after New Year’s,” Dad said.
“Tacos, My father. Tacos!” Susie said, hopping off the couch.
“Some new tradition, huh?” he said, scooping her up again. “And what do you think our Midwestern relatives would think about that, my little bambinas? Sure beats lutefisk.”
“Lutefisk and lefse and Copenhagen snoose…” I began.
“… Brandt High School will loose loose loose!” He finished with me.
I wasn’t sure what any of that meant, but they were sounds from the farm in South Dakota.The rhyme was part of our private language, like Spanish was too.
“Did you really say that out on the farm?” I said.
“You bet! Dem South Dakota boys…”
“Okay, you guys,” my mother warned as she lay the last of the small dishes on the small dinner table. She disappeared back into the kitchen. “We’re ready to sit down.”IMG_5462
My father lifted Susie into her chair at the table. I climbed into mine as he went down the short hall to the bathroom. Mom carried in a platter of steaming fried tortillas.
My father reappeared. “I don’t know how you did this, Nan,” he said. “Tortillas in Milano?”
“Found these when we were in Washington last month,” my mother said, tossing two crisp tortillas onto each of our plates. She spooned some cheese, hamburger and tomato onto Susie’s plate. I piled some of each onto my plate and began building my own taco, anticipating the first crisp tangy chewy bite.

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My father smiled at my mother across the table as they sat down. Her eyes smiled back.
“Shall we say a few words?” he said, reaching for our hands. “Like how very lucky we are to be here celebrating our first Christmas in Italy.”
He looked at me.
“Feliz Navidad father,” I said.
“Buon Natale,” My father corrected.
I knew I was using the old words, but they just felt so much more comfortable.
“Buon Natale,” I said.
My father nodded.
“Natale,” Susie said.
“And we’re thinking about our families in Minnesota and South Dakota,” Mom added.
My father gave my hand a squeeze. We dug in.
After dinner, Susie and I had our bath while Mom finished dishes and Dad read through papers from his briefcase.
I stepped out of the steamy tub. The cold of the white tiles sucked the soft warmth from the bottom of my feet as I remembered what I was going to tell Susie this afternoon. I helped her out of the tub.
“Susie, remember what tomorrow is?”
“Christmas,” she said, balancing on one foot as she aimed the other one toward her pajama leg.
She dropped to the little bath mat to continue wriggling her feet all the way down into the booties. I zipped up my matching one-piece pajamas and reached for the comb on the sink.
“And what do we get on Christmas?”
“Presents?” she said, looking up.
“And you know what?” I said, stopping the comb halfway down my head. “Some of the presents are already under the tree, cause they’re from My mother and My father and Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Jim.”
“I know,” Susie said. She reached for the tub edge and pulled herself up to standing.
“Okay, and then there’re other presents,” I said, looking her in the eyes, “Other presents that we don’t even see until tomorrow, until Christmas.”
“Yeah,” Susie said. She pulled at the zipper on her pajamas. “From Santa.”
“Yes, yes, that’s right! From Santa,” I said.
“Santa Claus.” She reached for the comb.
I held it over my head.
“Santa Claus. Santa Claus,” I said, lowering my face toward hers. “Don’t you remember? He came to our house. He was there.  He walks right in and he knows we are here now. He is coming. Right here while we are sleeping.”
Susie’s mouth was starting to quiver. I couldn’t stop.
“And he’s going to see our tree lights and come right here and we will be sleeping and Mommy and Daddy will be sleeping and he’ll be here.” I realized I was almost shouting.santa-tracker-891395.jpg
“No!” Susie wailed and burst into tears.
The bathroom door flew open.
“What’s going on here?”
My mother dropped to her knees. Susie let out a louder howl and flopped into her arms. Tears spilled from my eyes.
My mother reached one hand to my shoulder.
“What is it, honey?”
“I don’t want Santa to come in here,” I said, dropping to her lap.
“I’m scared,” Susie whimpered.
My mother stroked our wet heads.
“Okay, now,” she said quietly, rocking on her knees. “Okay. It’s okay.”
I felt her calmness seeping into me.
“How about if we turn off the Christmas tree lights? I think that might just do it,” she said. “You know we’re all together now. My father’s here and I’m here.”
We rocked together for a minute. Susie stopped crying. I took a deep breath.
“There, that’s better,” My mother said, lifting us onto our pajama feet and standing up. “Now, how about a goodnight song from your Daddy? What would you like, Jane?”
I knew right away. “Feliz Cumpleaños.”
“Sure, that’s one that Susie knows too, don’t you honey?” my mother said as we walked out into the living room.
“Bob, the girls will say goodnight.”
“G’night, Daddy,” Susie said, reaching up to kiss him.
My father put his papers into his open briefcase and leaned over to hug my sister.
“Good night, Daddy,” I said.
“Good night, signorina,” he said, kissing my cheek.
My mother switched off the Christmas lights.
“And they’d like to hear you play Happy Birthday on the guitar.”
“No, no,” Susie said. “Feliz Años.”
“That’s the same thing,” I said as Mom walked us to our bedroom.
We got into our beds. My mother tucked Susie in and then came over to my bed. She pulled the sheet up to my chin.
“Now, sweet dreams,” she said.
“Good night, Mommy,” I said, and gave her a kiss.
She turned off the light between our beds.
“Buon Natale,” she said and swung our door almost closed.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. As I let it slowly out, I heard the first strums of my father’s guitar. The chords hung in the dark bedroom air like a hammock, swinging us steady and safe.
I swayed in the dark and listened for Fina.

Christmas Eve, 1959: Part One

[From Inventing Myself: A Memoir, Jane Kelly Amerson Lopez (draft)]

Milan
Christmas Eve, 1959

Unknown-2My breath hung like a puff of steam, the droplets just beginning to tickle my nose. I leaned back in the metal café chair and followed my breath up toward the foggy ceiling that looked like a big glass spider web. I shivered despite the Christmas-festooned Galleria shop windows, glittering with red and gold cellophane and silver-and-blue foiled chocolates.

On Christmas Eve fifty-eight years ago next week, I was sitting in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, Italy, trying to piece together what had happened to the life I’d known, and wondering how I would navigate this new world.

Dad’s two-year adventure with the United States Information Agency in Caracas, Venezuela had evolved into four years. Caracas was the only home my sister and I knew: I’d been a baby when we’d left Minnesota in 1955 and Susie was a real Caraquena, having been born in Venezuela. Washington inquired into Dad’s preference for his second post, assuming, of course, that they wished to continue. He and Mom agreed they’d found a career niche — returning to his General Mills’s PR job wasn’t nearly as interesting as continuing to do work they both found meaningful — so he tossed out Italy: his appetite for Europe had been whetted by a motorcycle trip shortly after the war, and he’d been working on his Italian with owner of the corner barbershop by the Embassy.  Dad wrote: “No one ever expected these expressed preferences to bring results, but in this case, it clicked: Personnel sent word that our next assignment would be as Assistant Branch Public Affairs Office in Milan.”

The September transfer came with the required five days of briefings in Washington and the statutory Home Leave. We traveled by boat from the tropics to the bracing fall of New England and then by car to real winter in Minnesota, where we celebrated my fifth birthday and our first American Thanksgiving at with Mom and Dad’s families. Susie and I had never seen snow: we made our first snow angels in our grandparent’s backyard in Winona and loaded up on sweaters and winter coats before taking our first jet airplane flight to Italy.

After nearly three months of being on the road, it was good to be in one spot, even though Milan was nothing like our real home in Venezuela. The December days were short, damp and cold, and the austere business-like city had little of Caracas’ color. There was no mosaic art to break up the grey city corridors, no flamboyan or bougainvillea or palm trees, no fruity perfume in the air.


And there was no Josefina, our beloved maid, who had created a domestic refuge for my sister and me. We played in Spanish, switching to English when Mom or Dad entered into our world.

“Finish your milk, girls.”
My mother held a finger up and looked over Susie’s shoulder toward the waiter’s black jacket as he disappeared through the café doors. Her long red nails clicked against the tabletop as she picked her up her coffee cup and sipped from where her lipstick had left its kiss. Her skin looked as white as the cold air.
The collar of her new dark coat tugged at the wisps of brown hair that had broken free of the French twist.
“All set, Jane?” she said, smiling over her cup at me.
“Why didn’t Fina come with us?” I said.
“Oh, wouldn’t that have been nice,” she said, stealing a glance at my sister. Susie was working on her elephant ear and calmly looking off toward the rest of the arcade. “But she had to stay with her life in Venezuela.” She raised a finger as the waiter whizzed by.
“You understand?”

I nodded. Being the oldest meant doing what grownups expected from me.  While he was revving up to the new job, finding us an apartment, and testing his Italian, Dad expected us to make this new place home. And Mom counted on me to be her pal; this was all new to her too.

I reached the parfait spoon down the tall glass to scoop up a few unmelted grains of sugar where they stood in the cooling milk. They crunched between my teeth like guava paste. I nibbled at the sticky golden flakes of the elephant ear that clung to my fingers.

The waiter scurried over.
“Si, signora,” he said, pulling a pad of paper from behind his waistband.
I knew what that meant. Some of Italian was almost like Spanish. He said something else and laid a slip of paper on the marble tabletop before whirring away again. My mother smiled at us as she placed big silver coins on the paper.
“Due cento, girls. Doesn’t that sound like Spanish? Remember? Dos cientos. Due cento. They mean the same thing: two hundred. Two hundred lire.”
“Due cento,” I repeated, enjoying the new sounds. I only wished I knew more of them. I didn’t like not understanding Italian.
“Susie, remember when I taught you Feliz Cumpleanos?”
I swung my foot into hers.
“Susie.”
I hit her a little harder.
“Susieee!”
“Ow,” she said, swinging her gaze and her heel at me. The wrought iron table lurched to one side.
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“That’s enough, girls,” Mom said. “Here, Susie, let’s wrap up your elephant ear for tomorrow. Button up those coats. Time to get back to the pensione for Christmas Eve.”

I tugged at the collar of my new blue coat, my fingers slipping off the velveteen buttons as I pushed them into the tight holes. Susie had her new coat on, too; they were both hand-me-downs from Betsy and Annie Marsden in St. Paul. My arms felt tight and itchy where the yellow Winona Knitting Mill sweater had bunched up in my sleeves.

Mom reached under the table, retrieving the straps of her purse from around her feet. Only tourists hung their purses on the backs of their chairs. She tucked the pastry into her purse, took Susie in her left hand and me in the other, and steered us into the crowd heading through the Galleria toward the Piazza. Her heels clicked sharply on the cloudy glass tiled floor.

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As we emerged to the Piazza del Duomo, we passed a Gypsy sitting on the pavement, her dirty skirts splayed out. A dull-eyed child, maybe Susie’s age, sat listlessly on the woman’s lap, and the mother’s filthy outstretched hand was accompanied by a pitiful voice saying something about the “povero bambino.” Mom said they drugged their children. She looked straight ahead. I tugged on her arm.
“Can’t we give her money?”
“No,” she said, but she slowed down and stepped us out of the crowd. The beggar’s voice grew louder. “But how about food? Susie, shall we give your elephant ear to the baby?”
My mother reached into her purse for the napkin-full of leftover pastry. Susie frowned.
“It’s mine.”
“And you will be doing a very nice thing by giving it to this little girl who doesn’t have anything else on Christmas.”
Susie nodded.
“Here, Jane.”
My mother handed the package to me.
I placed it in the Gypsy’s hand. “Buon Natale.”
The woman snatched it out of my hand with a sneer.
“Did I say that wrong?”
“You said it just right. And it was the right thing to do.”
“Like when you took the beggar to a café for breakfast in New York before you met Daddy?”
My mother laughed.
“When of course he really wanted some wine. And wasn’t he surprised?”

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My mother walked us onto the dark Piazza del Duomo. La Scala opera house was at the far end of the wide town square. The Duomo sat heavily at our end, its lit spires sculpted yellow and grey against the evening sky. Couples had gathered here and there on the steps. I twisted to walk backwards so I could keep my eye on them.
“Jane.” My mother gave me a little tug.
The constant flock of pigeons rose like rippling smoke as people walked through. I stamped at bird, watching it lift off its corn kernels just a bit before settling back down. We passed the red kiosk as we left the Piazza. I wondered if Santa would give me a lira so I could buy some corn. Even pigeons need to eat on Christmas.

 

Letting Go

Few relationships survive the transient life of a Foreign Service family. We were always leaving. Even when we were arriving, it was to replace someone else who was on their way to another post, just as it would sooner or later be our turn to go. Our apartment, our school, our friends were all temporary. So, too, were pets.

“So, how’d you like to have a dog?” That’s how my sister and I found out we were moving from Italy to Colombia in 1963.

I didn’t need a dog: in fact, I was terrorized by a longhaired daschund puppy someone had in our Rome apartment complex. Perhaps, Susie and I had asked if we could have a dog to be like kids in the exotic world of America, where Mom and Dad were from. Mom’s stories of growing up in Minnesota included Jack, the wire-haired terrier who followed her down the block when she walked to school with her friends (we couldn’t image walking to school, much less going out without an adult). The Little House books Mom read to us about Laura and Mary on the prairie had another Jack; and then there were Snap, the Bobbsey Twins’ retired circus dog, and Waggo, their energetic puppy. Spot was the dog in the Dick- and-Jane books Susie’s class was reading at the International School of Rome.

At any rate, we took the bait, and in January 1964 we were at a farm outside Bogota holding a cuddly black and brown brindle boxer puppy that we named Caesar Augustus, Italian nerds that we were. My fear of dogs evaporated, and Caesar took over our walled-in back yard. brindle boxer puppiesHe was too aggressive to be walked, and we only played at training him when we paid him much attention at all. His birth home, the Finca La Perla, became a headline in family lore for blowing up a couple of months later, killing members of the dissident student underground that were building bombs. Explosions punctuated our two-and-a-half years in Bogota. Having a mean-looking guard dog was a good idea.

Like all things in every post, Caesar stayed behind when we moved to the States in 1966. If there was conversation about bringing him with us, I don’t recall it. He went to Dad’s Embassy chauffeur and died of a heart attack a few years later. I received that information with little emotion.

 

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We were savvy teenagers when we moved back overseas in 1971, resisting the notion of going to Spain until a dog was again offered. Susie and I found an English cocker in a pet shop while Dad’s Embassy chauffeur idled the sedan curbside. She was as passive as Caesar had been aggressive. We named her Tori, and we didn’t walk her either, although the Franco’s Guardia Civil and night time serenos kept the streets secure. Two years later, Tori moved to Rome with my family when I left for college. There, she managed to break Dad’s finger, or rather he slammed his finger onto the marble floor when swatting her for peeing in the foyer, to the muffled
amusement of Mom, Susie and me. When Dad was re-assigned to the Foreign Service chair at Tufts, Tori stayed behind with another Embassy family whose children adoring children had tea parties with her. I don’t recall ever learning about the rest of her life, nor having any curiosity.

So it would be safe to say that, apart from the initial excitement about the idea of a dog, I had never invested much emotion in the actual owning of a dog, much less caring. My husband, however, had once deeply loved a dog. The youngest child in a large family, Ray found a playmate and loyal companion in Bullet, a black-and-white dog he raised from a puppy in Brooklyn; he was heartbroken when his family moved to the Bronx, leaving Bullet behind. The fantasy of finding a new Bullet had lurked in his heart for years, and we tried and failed three times to adopt shelter dogs when we lived in upstate New York.

Baby Django_2Twelve years ago, Ray retired and our daughter was in Middle School: they convinced me that they were ready to raise a dog we knew “from scratch.” And so, another farm puppy, a Nestle’s-colored Labrador Retriever, made his way into our home and into our hearts. We named him Django. Bullet’s soul found a new body. And I learned how to love a dog.

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Django did not disappoint. He graduated at the top of his training class, learning the good behavior he would follow for the rest of his life: wait for the “okay” before eating; sit, stay, wait; no jumping on people or pulling on leash; and no stealing food from humans. He was fluent in English. He jogged with me every morning and sauntered along with us on slow Sunday afternoon walks.
He hurled himself across empty school fields in the pursuit of a thrown tennis ball and leapt into Ray’s SUV like a hobo riding the rails, whether it was a trip to the hardware store or the 2,800 mile trek to and from our part-time home in Florida, where he discovered his Happy Place: Dog Beach, a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of leash-free canine heaven.
He bounded down the dune stairs and across the wide beach to stand in the surf, ears blown back and hair ruffled by the wind, ready to race for the tennis ball. When we made Florida our permanent home, the salt water and sun turned Django’s hair a surfer-dude burnished auburn.IMG_0966_2

Django grew into a strong and handsome 80 pounds of polished mahogany, the picture of calm and self-assurance.

About year ago, when he was eleven, Django began sliding onto his left hip occasionally when chasing the ball on grass. We thought it was arthritis. Ray threw the ball less frequently and closer, then not at all, but the slipping slowly escalated. I cut the distance of our walks by half, and then by half again, until we were barely getting down the block, Django’s back feet scuffing on the sidewalk. Ray tried one more trip to Dog Beach, but Django could no longer negotiate the sand, and it took the help of kind strangers to carry our dog up across the dune. He needed help standing, and walking on grass was easier on his feet but harder on his balance. He lost weight, all in the hips, though we were feeding him more than ever.

Two months ago, the vet updated her diagnosis: Django had a progressive and incurable neuropathy, something similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Steroids might extend his life, but could lead to other problems. Pain medication might help. Nothing was going to avoid making a very difficult decision: letting our dog go in order to end his suffering.

Still, we were not ready to have him gone.

By mid-November, Django had lost nearly a quarter of his weight. He was completely dependent on us, unable to get to his feet, and, once standing, his hind legs slid out from under him. The pain meds weren’t working; the once calm boy was agitated and barking every few minutes to signal his misery. We made the appointment to euthanize Django on the day after Thanksgiving, but when we got home, my husband was overcome by despair: he couldn’t imagine life without Django, and he wanted to do anything that would keep his puppy with him.

Over the Thanksgiving table, our daughter helped us through our sorrow and into compassion for our dear dog whose suffering had overcome his life. We stroked Django, crying, telling him how grateful we were that he’d come into our lives and how sorry we were that we had to let him go. We fed him turkey morsels. We took lots of pictures. We cried some more.

Never has a day moved so slowly as that Friday.

fullsizeoutput_4fdFinally, it was time. I put Django’s collar on him for the first time in weeks: it slipped right over his big bony head. I buckled it three holes smaller. The skin around his neck was as soft as a grandma’s upper arm. We clipped on the leash and helped him to his feet and toward the front door. Django uncharacteristically pulled away. We hadn’t had him on a leash in weeks.

We waited in the examination room while a tech inserted a port into Django’s front left leg for the sedative that would end Django’s life. When he brought the dog back and lowered him to a blanket, I knelt next to Django and took his face in my hands. Those soulful eyes were dim and dark. Ray passed me the box of Kleenex on the examination table. We blew our noses.

The vet came in, spoke with us for a few minutes, and then asked if we were ready. We nodded and gave Django some room. She depressed the plunger.
For a second, nothing. Then Django’s face swiveled slightly to the right, his mouth opened for two quick breaths, and his head dropped gently onto his right paw.
In that moment, the tension and exhaustion that had ravaged Django’s body and mind disappeared. He was at rest.

It was so fast. Ray and I sat on our knees, our hands on our puppy’s head, and wept.After a while, the vet and tech gently lifted Django’s body up by the corners of the blanket and carried him away. They closed the door.

We sat alone in the room for a while. At some point, Ray asked for my phone. I turned it on and handed it to him; Victoria would be waiting for our call. They spoke without the speaker. He paused several times. I knew our daughter was crying. We were all crying.

Somehow, we made it home. Waves of grief washed over me, the chemicals of the emotion making the insides of my wrists tingle like I hadn’t felt since the death of my father. Victoria texted that she’d made an homage to Django on Facebook. I thanked her. I didn’t have words yet.

Ray sat. I wandered around the house. We went to bed. We talked quietly in the dark, both of us blowing our noses. Tears dripped into my ears. Periodically, shocks of sorrow flowed into my wrists. Eventually, we went to sleep.

If you are lucky enough to have loved, you will grieve. It took me a year of living to begin the fill the emptiness left by my father’s sudden death 11 years ago, and my mother lived in sorrow another two years before a stroke took her life. My sister and I are the remaining Foreign Service family.

We have both been fortunate, though: two men worked their way into the tight family circle, becoming our husbands and our children’s fathers, and those children are flourishing as young adults. Our extended family surrounds us with love. We cherish them.

I am grateful to have left the nomadic life behind and to have allowed in permanence, even though letting in love means letting go before you’re ready.

You’re never ready.

Where I’m From

Some Foreign Service kids feel disconnected from the country of their parents’ birth. Not me. Long before I ever lived in the United States, I was a Midwesterner, tethered to family and ancestry by virtue of my parents’ efforts to stay connected to what would always be their home.

My mother and father identified first as Midwesterners.

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Mom, Nancy Robb, was from Winona, Minnesota, a Mississippi River town about two hours south of the Twin Cities where her father was his generation’s owner of the the family business, Robb Brothers General Store. She expected to live out her life in the shadow of Sugarloaf, raising a family with a summer cottage above Lake Winona, shopping at the Piggly Wiggly, and supporting the YWCA.

Dad, Bob Amerson, was the eldest son on a hardscrabble South Dakota farm a few miles west of the Minnesota border.

Education was the way out for him — and the GI Bill gave him Macalester College, where he met my mother — but his love for the land, the people and the history of the prairie ran deep in him. He wasn’t going to be a farmer, but he was always going to be the son of pioneers. His memoir, From the Hidewood ( on Amazon at http://a.co/2rIEtat) includes his sketches of scenes that still resonate.

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Dad designated the Twin Cities as his “home address of record,” in the parlance of the Foreign Service, the place to which the State Department would send us for a summer month every few years to “undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States” (Foreign Affairs Manual and Handbook). For Mom and Dad, Home Leave that meant connecting with family and college friends. For my sister Susie and me, Home Leave meant experiencing an exotic world in which butter was salty; children could play alone on the grass; and people lived in the same house forever. Our Robb cousins and us could walk around the block for ice cream without grownups. The Robbs, Amersons,and Marsdens (Macalester family) were perpetually assembled to eat, laugh and sing.

These people anchored us. They still do.

In August, my sister and brother-in-law (who were married by Dave Marsden), my daughter (god daughter of Betsy Marsden) and I spent some time with Mary, Brian and Annie Marsden. The next day, we spent the morning with cousin Becky Robb. That afternoon, Amerson cousins from Arizona, California, Colorado, Iowa, Florida, Massachusetts, Oregon and Wisconsin (and the Twin Cities) gathered for a reunion on the “new” farm on the bluffs of the St. Croix.

IMG_5324 We hope next year’s reunion will be with all four Robb cousins. It’s been a while since we posed in Grandma’s dress-up clothes!

 

Mom and Dad also identified as the descendants of immigrants. Mom’s ancestors wereIMG_5311 the Robbs from Scotland — a clan of poets whose notebooks line my study — and the Kilis from Norway, a name changed to Kelly at Ellis Island. Dad’s family were the Norwegian Amundsons –who became the Amersons– and the Casjens from Holland/Germany.

Like hundreds of thousands of others who crossed into America through Ellis Island, these brave souls traveled for “seven weeks in a sailing vessel” without hope of ever seeing home again. My parents reconnected the American-born and Norwegian-born branches of our families. Dad found cousins for his two older sisters who had lost their Norwegian mother, and their extended family, to scarlet fever when they were toddlers. Mom traced family way back, including a glass factory in Jevnaker, where a dish she’d inherited was created by an ancestor in the 1800’s.

So it was no wonder that I felt at home during the Scandinavian portion of my husband’s and mine Baltic Sea cruise last summer. After the dreariness of St. Petersburg, the ease with which my husband and I blended into the ports of call across the Baltic was heaven.

We wandered unescorted through Helsinki, enjoying lingonberries (served by an Amerson look–alike) and reindeer antler crafts (I did confirm that they shed their antlers every few years).DSCN4232

 

 

We floated down the waterways of Stockholm past greenways filled with energetic walkers.

We sat in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens enjoying the laughter of children on the gentle summer wind. DSCN4603
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Although our ship plied the waters on which my brave ancestors traveled all those years ago, Norway was not on the itinerary.  We hope to visit Oslo another time to see cousin Erling Odegarden, a Facebook friend.

Travel abroad connects me with my past. It’s nostaglic to revisit the venues of my Foreign Service childhood as we did a year ago in Venice, Naples and Rome. This year’s Baltic cruise included crossing paths in Berlin with my father’s visit to that city some 55 years before. Stopping in Russia meant entering the Communist realm against which Dad fought by holding high the banner of democracy.

But spending time with my extended family reminds me that although I was raised in the Foreign Service, I always had an American home, the place where, every few years, they let us in as easily as if we’d come from around the corner.

This is where I’m from.

 

The Big Red Flag

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The contrast between what had been part of the USSR and what was still Russia could not have been greater when my husband and I visited Tallin, Estonia and St. Petersburg, Russia one day apart during our 2017 Baltic Sea cruise.

We spent a sunny happy day roaming medieval Tallin, Estonia’s picture postcard capital. A free shuttle bus dropped us off next to the original walls, and we explored the cobblestone streets on our own, enjoying a hipster cafe and a rustic restaurant before meandering through stalls of traditional Estonian handicrafts on our way back to the ship. We didn’t see one police officer.

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The skies were heavy and grey as we sailed into St. Petersburg harbor the next morning. We stood quietly in line while grim-faced passport control officers thumbed slowly through each passenger’s information, swiveling their heads toward and away from a presumed computer database, eventually shooting the passport back under the glass slot without eye contact. No “Welcome to Russia!” here.

Rain drizzled down the windows of the tour bus as we drove past blocks of industrial-grade apartment housing.

IMG_4719Older buildings closer to the city center were sooty and cracked. A city park had been let to grow wild behind rusted fencing. There was not a flower to be seen.

It was depressing. Maybe the weather brought out the old distrust of a long-time enemy. After being out of the picture for much of the post-Cold War Era, Russia was now an above-the-fold news story involving the Trump presidential campaign.

During the Cold War, which began before and ended after my father’s Foreign Service career, The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) made headlines all the time. We were the Good Guys. The Russians were the Bad Guys. The USSR had carried out espionage activities inside America with the aid of US citizens, particularly during World War II. Soviet influence, and American concern, grew with the Cold War. UnknownCommunist sympathizers were branded as un-American by Senator McCarthy and as subversives by J. Edgar Hoover. Truman’s Executive Order 9835, the Loyalty Order, mandated that all federal employees be subject to scrutiny to root out Communist influence.
Both of my parents underwent a “full field security check” as part of the 1955 USIA application process to ensure that there were no hidden vulnerabilities that might provide the USSR or others with a way in. My dad recalled facing his inquisitor:

Various investigators — FBI, Civil Service, State Department, we were never sure — poked around Minnesota and South Dakota asking questions, perhaps thus raising a quizzical eyebrow from acquaintances or neighbors here and there but failing to uncover anything that might constitute a “security risk.” [During my final interview with the Agency security office] the agent angled repeated questions about my relationship with the college professor whose name I had listed as a reference on my application form. The line of questioning and barely masked intensity of my inquisitor suggested that the professor’s name still represented a suspicion that he had to check out.images-9   I felt indignation surge along with the sudden realization that, at this very moment, I was undergoing some kind of examination to test my patriotism, my loyalty. With government employment came vulnerability.

So what was, and is, disturbing about the 2017 Russia stories is that the a presidential candidate, a Good Guy wanna be, is being investigated for aspiring to collude with the Bad Guys to ensure his election. The White House and Republicans on the Hill have been very relaxed about the whole thing. Imagine if the Truman administration had been accused of loyalty to any foreign sovereign government, much less the USSR Communist regime. It would have been an impeachable offense.

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Truth and fiction no longer stand apart: Trump’s people have given alternative facts a place at the table. Trump deflects and redirects and distracts, adopting Russian terminology to distance himself from the issue: it’s all fake news. And the only loyalty he cares about is loyalty to himself, measured in public declarations of his Superbness.
I was starting to think that Trump was the New Teflon President: never before has any public official exhibited greater offensive behavior without consequence …and then November 30th happened.
“Mueller Shock and Awe.”
“A collective body blow to the Trump White House.”
On Monday, Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller III revealed criminal charges including “conspiring against the United States” against two campaign officials, and a guilty plea by the individual who connected the Trump campaign to Russian “dirt against Hillary.”images-8
The evidence is in, and the Big Red Flag is up.
But last July, I despaired of ever the Trump administration getting caught in Russian lie. Although the St. Petersburg subway system was covered in marble, mosaics and brass and the caviar at the market glistened temptingly, we had little interaction with somber train passengers and sullen shopkeepers.

The skies brightened a bit the next day while we cruised past mansions of the old aristocracy,

but the Russian Revolution still reverberates: the bones of Tsar Nicholas, Alexandra and their children are entombed within the baroque ornateness of the Peter and Paul Cathedral.

 

So much wealth concentrated in Petrograd’s Tsarist autocracy could not hold against Lenin’s demand for land to the peasants and bread to the poor. The Revolution brought the system down.

Our revolution took place nearly 250 years ago, and the United States government serves at the pleasure of we the people. When elected officials forget this, we will remind them.

The 2018 elections are around the corner.

 

In the Service of Country

In 1960, Dad’s employer, the United States Information Agency, sponsored him for a year of graduate study at the Bologna Center, part of the Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS). A change of post wasn’t in the cards. After four years in Caracas, we’d been in Milan barely nine months. Dad expected to take over as Director in the Branch Post the following year. After the late arrival of our things sent from Caracas across the Atlantic and settling us into an apartment, Mom had begun assembling a life, making her way in Italian in her daily rounds of shops and through interactions with Dad’s growing list of contacts. Attending La Scala, including hosting new diva Leontyne Price, was a delightful responsibility. We’d enjoyed family trips to the Italian Alps and the lake country north of Milan, taking the opportunity to get windswept on Lake Como and to raise a glass of aqua minerale over lunch. IMG_5223IMG_5169 2

IMG_E5221I was happy to have a real school and new friends from kindergarten at International School. And I’d just lost my first tooth.

Nonetheless, Bologna it was to be, and down the Autostrada we went in our little pale-blue Fiat 1100, “la millecento.” For housing, Mom and Dad opted for the downstairs floor of a hillside house on Via Putti where it was reported the Nazis had their regional headquarters during the War. The front of the house faced on a rose garden where long lines of hairy snails left shiny trails on the stone pathways. Susie and I were told there were old weapons behind a locked iron door in the wall at the end of the backyard. The only option for school was the original Maria Montessori school in a villa at the edge of town, a topic for a future blog: whatever creative spirit seems to govern the Montessori schools now in vogue in the States, it was completely absent in this rigid Italian system school in which I was the only American.

About half the 60 students at the Bologna Center with Dad were Americans, including second-year Master’s Degree students from the DC-based Johns Hopkins University SAIS, and the other half were mostly from Western Europe. Two other Foreign Service Officers were also enrolled: Dick Forschner, a specialist in consular affairs; and Tom Fina, whose career had concentrated on Europe, especially Italy. Tom and Eleanor Fina became life-long friends of my parents and I am fortunate in having stayed in touch with them to this day.

 Tom and Eleanor Fina in their suburban Virginia home (Washington Post)
]AUDIO SLIDESHOW: Retiring at Home

The Bologna Center courses focused on the Common Market and European Integration, major foreign policy themes for most countries in these post-WWII years. Among the year’s field trips was a visit to West Berlin for a first-hand view of the political realities of Cold War tensions just months before construction of the Berlin Wall was begun. It had been only ten years since the Soviet secret service had closed Sachsenhausen, where they’d imprisoned 60,000 men, women and children after the War. Dad recalled as pretty dramatic visiting military barracks where growing numbers of East German refugees seeking freedom in the West were being temporarily housed. He was fighting a flu bug but didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to see East Berlin with Tom: they crossed the Brandenburg Gate line and “walked for hours along the barren streets of that forlorn city” before taking the tram back to their haven in West Berlin.

Fifty-six years later, in August of this year, Ray and I were in Berlin on the afternoon of our third Baltic Sea cruise day. We had spent the morning at Sachsenhausen, enveloped in the spiritual darkness of the concentration camp, despite the warm sunny day.

I was surprised, and gladdened, at the loveliness of Berlin, a city of parks and beautiful buildings, and then I realized that my mental images of the city were post-War black and white photos. DSCN3928After a delicious lunch of wiener schnitzel and apfel streusel, we retraced some of Dad and Tom Fina’s trip as we crossed the brick line boundary
marking the split history of a now reunified Germany.DSCN3931

Just past the Brandenburg Gate, in what was East Berlin in 1961, we saw the American flag flying over our Embassy.DSCN3929
Some sections of the Wall that began to be built to lock in East Germans the year of Dad’s visit to Berlin remain, vestiges of another time to not be forgotten.

Checkpoint Charlie is still intact. It was the third border crossing between West and East controlled Germany: Checkpoint Alpha was at the border between West and East Germany, Checkpoint Bravo was at the border between East Germany and West Berlin.

The pictures from the Soviet era present a strong contrast to today’s tourist-friendly hut and its photogenic military guards.

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A different photograph at Checkpoint Charlie – of a young President Kennedy and USSR leader Nikita Khrushchev – pulled at another family memory. At the end of the Bologna Center academic year, Dad had an additional opportunity to observe the dynamics of the Cold War: the June 3-4, 1961 summit in Vienna, Austria between the new American President and Khrushchev at which this picture was taken.

Dad volunteered to work at the press center in handling the hundreds of expected reporters, and the Embassy in Rome gave the nod. The four of us traveled north through Trieste and Yugoslavia before arriving in Vienna, where Dad “got in some useful and educational work in the palace, observing press briefings involving journalistic luminaries and government types.”

Although he later wrote that Mom, Susie and I rode on the famous huge ferris wheel, the only recollection I have of the trip is being in a crowd on the street looking up at President Kennedy waving from a balcony.  Today, I discovered that I was looking at the Hotel Schloss Wilhelminenberg, where brunch is served on the balcony these days. 100631247

The optimism around President Kennedy’s administration in 1960 stands in stark contrast to the concern we feel about the current inhabitant of the White House, including the nature of the relationship between Trump and Russian leader Putin. We knew where America stood in the Cold War that underlay Dad’s Foreign Service career: the leader of the Western Bloc; the advocate of democracy, a free press and human rights. As he demonstrates in daily pronouncements, Trump has no use for these bastions of American life.  Senator John McCain said last night in his acceptance speech for the Liberty Medal that to “abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe” and “refuse the obligations of international leadership … for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems” is unpatriotic.

I know Dad and Mom would say: Amen.

Forcing Memory

The itinerary of the Mediterranean cruise that my husband Ray and I took during the summer of 2016 included places that I’d lived in (Rome) or visited (Venice, Florence and Barcelona) during Dad’s Foreign Service career.

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With the marvelous exception of stunning Dubrovnik and beautiful Croatia, I had sufficient linguistic skills to happily negotiate our adventures (Italian for the boot, French for the Riviera) and we were both at home in Barcelona, where Ray’s mother was born, although we saw and heard more Catalan than Spanish than the last time we’d been there.  It was heaven revisiting really old haunts!

This year, we were both ready for new venues, and so we booked a cruise on the Celebrity Silhouette to the European, Scandinavian and Russian cities on the Baltic Sea.

Two days out from Amsterdam, we arrived at our first port of call: the German seaside resort of Warnemunde. Living near true (warm weather) seaside escapes in South Florida, we’d chosen a tour that explored the region a few hours to the south of the coast.

The excursion began by commuter train, rolling through a summery countryside of sunflowers, silos and fields of grain. Only a solar farm kept it all from looking like the landscape between the Twin Cities and South Dakota, a trail worn into my DNA from Home Leave pilgrimages.DSCN3851 2.JPG

Our morning destination was Oranienburg, a small town a few miles outside Berlin. As we walked from the depot to a waiting tour bus, the collection of bicycles parked tightly wheel to wheel told of the commuters who’d be back at day’s end. It was a pretty little town, the homes pale yellow with red roofs and red geranium window boxes. A few white clouds hung in the blue sky. It was going to be a warm day.


Toward the edge of town, the bus turned right past several handsome homes surrounded by lush gardens. At the end of the street, the bus took a sharp left into a parking area. We followed our guide back along the neighborhood street a short ways, and then color bleached out of the day.

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Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum. Sachsenhausen, Himmler’s model concentration camp. Built to give architectural expression to the Nazi world view. Designed to symbolize the subjugation of its 200,000 prisoners to the absolute power of the SS.

They slept a hundred to a barracks built for a third that, shoving to get to the small toilet and washing space and crust of bread before the guards pushed them out to the windswept yard to stand in the open for hours.

They were marched out to work in the village brickworks to support the Nazi war effort. As the German army began to thin in the waning days of WWII and every available man was conscripted, the SS increased the prisoners’ meal rations so that they’d survive to replace the factory workers. Over the camp gate, this is emblazed in iron: Work Makes You Free.

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Between 1936 and its liberation on April 22 and 23, 1945, tens of thousands of people died at Sachsenhausen. Words fail us. We leave a stone.

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DSCN3941After decades of denial, a reunified Germany has slowly but firmly turned to look at the horror of the Nazi regime. The effort is meant to “guarantee memory.”

Twenty-five years have gone into the restoration of Sachsenhausen’s original buildings, design and artifacts. The Berlin Holacaust Memorial, which we stopped at in the afternoon, is an unavoidable block-wide grid of unmarked slabs of grey stone laid out like coffins, soaring over death-shadowed canyons in the center and emerging into the ongoing life of daylight. DSCN3944

These words were found in a note written by a Schasenhousen prisoner whose humanity the SS could not beat down: DSCN3892

Without commemorating all who were killed with complete contempt and hate, we cannot move forward. And even as we do look back, there is no guarantee that evil won’t creep back in: the right wing party made gains in the recent German elections.

We too have a shameful past: slavery. Emancipation did not lead to freedom, and we’ve allowed slavery to morph into accepted behavior in this country. Jim Crow. Lynching. Segregation. Discrimination. Incarceration. Death at the hands of the police. Indeed, Nazis and Klansmen march in support of racism under the cover of the First Amendment, and statues of the Confederate military are defended as “heritage” to be protected. It’s a heritage built by slaves and defeated in the Civil War. True freedom and liberty are yet out of reach to persons of color.

What if, instead of ignoring objections or tearing Confederate statues down, we found a way to lay out the full story, to force ourselves to look at our own dark past? Let’s talk about why we had a Civil War, and what has happened since. Until we can force our country to stare down its horrific past, we will never be free of it.

It seems to me that we should all kneel to acknowledge the injustice that we have never addressed. Maybe, once we have all bowed our heads, we can begin to talk about how we’re going to move forward. Together.